Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Expat Interview: Karen Henderson in Venice

For our second expat interview, I talked to Karen Henderson who moved to Venice from Baltimore, Maryland with her husband in 2008. Can you imagine living in Venice?! I've always wondered if people who live in Venice ever get lost (she said they don't anymore and they know almost every street very well from walking so much!). Here's what else she said:

"My husband and I moved to Italy in 2008 to escape our very hectic corporate American lives. We wanted to live a more simple life, centered on food, family and enjoying life with a more positive attitude. We loved the Italian lifestyle, so we decided to move there."

What was the most difficult thing to get used to?
Having to deal with all the bureaucratic issues of a foreign country, especially with no friends or family here at the time. And having very little knowledge of the Italian language.

How did you learn to speak Italian?
We're still learning. When we first moved, we didn't have any friends or family to help us learn, but we've taken private lessons with some great teachers over the years. Because my husband and I are both American, we aren't immersed in Italian at home so learning the language has been slower for us than we anticipated.
What do you love most about living in Italy?
I love the food. And I love the focus on family.

What do you miss the most from home?
Not much! Occasionally, I miss things like Hersey's Kisses or Tootsie Rolls. My friends and family send them to me every now and then though, to handle my craving.

What do you think is the hardest part of living in a different country?
Learning to adapt to totally different ways and a different culture that can be very foreign. The trick to surviving, I think, is not expecting Italy to be anything like the U.S. It's not and it never will be.

Was it easy to make friends in Venice?
Not making local friends easily has been one of our biggest disappointments. We do have expat friends who were easy to meet. There are local expat groups where we met people and we see them often. Venetians, though, aren't so easy to meet, especially if you're like we are: married to another expat. We didn't come to Venice to marry an Italian so we don't have an Italian family to be immersed in. Getting past those invisible walls to make good friends is tough here. I think in other Italian cities, it would have been easier. But Venice is such a tourist city with a fairly low resident population (56,000 and shrinking), and the Venetians stick to themselves. At least, this has been our experience. Only this past year, when I was adopted by the local rowing club, Pink Lionesses in Venice, did I begin to make local Venetian friends.

Have you adopted any Italian mannerisms or habits?
We do the afternoon passeggiata (walk) almost every afternoon. It's one of the best parts of the day now.

What's your favorite Italian meal?
Coming from an Italian family, I've always loved Italian food. Lasagna is and always will be my favorite.

Can you share a favorite spot or two in Venice?! We're always looking for new ideas...
Our favorite cafe is Imagina Cafe on Rio Tera Canal in Campo Santa Margherita. It's the best cafe/bar in town! Our favorite restaurant is Al Giardinetto in Castello, just off Ruga Giufa.

If friends or family back home ask you questions about what you're doing or when you're coming home, is there one that really bugs you?
Many people ask when we're moving back home rather than just coming for a visit. I just keep saying "not going to happen!"

Where is your favorite place to travel to in Italy?
We love exploring Venice, where we live, of course. But a second favorite would be Cinque Terre.

Favorite thing to do?
You know that Italian saying "la dolce per fare niente" (the sweetness of doing nothing)? My favorite thing is having a drink in an outside cafe, enjoying the weather and doing some people watching. That's a perfect example of la dolce per fare niente.

Thank you, Karen! You can check out Karen's blog here....and stay tuned for our third interview next month. (The first one is here.)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Carbonara with Zucchini

This is by far my favorite winter meal. Especially when you spend the morning skiing, like we did:

Now that it's finally started snowing in Cortina, it's perfect weather for skiing and for carbonara. A few years ago, when we first moved to Cortina, my dad challenged me to find the best carbonara in town and take him to eat it when he came to visit. That's a tough challenge when you live in Italy and all carbonara is delicious. In the end though, we decided we liked the carbonara with zucchini at Cinque Torri the best. These days I'm making it at home since we don't always want to leave the house in the snow.

Carbonara with Zucchini
For two or three

Enough spaghetti for two or three people
1 tablespoon of olive oil
About a cup of cubed pancetta
One zucchini, grated
2 eggs
1/4 cup of cream
1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan
LOTS of black pepper!!

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti. Cook according to package instructions. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until just browned. Turn the heat to low, add the zucchini and a bunch of black pepper and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Remove the pancetta and zucchini from the heat and set aside. Beat the eggs in a bowl with the cream and Parmesan (and a little more black pepper). When the pasta has finished cooking, drain (reserving a bit of the cooking water), and return it to the pot. Working quickly, stir the egg mixture in to the hot pasta. Add the pancetta and zucchini. If the pasta seems dry, you can add a bit of the cooking water. Serve immediately with extra Parmesan and black pepper.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Venice + Florence

My parents are visiting now and when they arrived last Wednesday, we took a mini-trip to Venice and Florence. Here are a few pictures if you'd like to see:

We started in Venice and successfully navigated our way from the airport all the way in to the hotel which was a huge feat. I love to stay at Locanda la Corte in Venice because it's located in a quiet, less touristy area - but it's kind of tricky to find if you don't follow their specific instructions! They have a great courtyard where it's fun to eat breakfast in the spring and summer - it was too cold in January but it was still beautiful.

After a good night's sleep for the weary travelers, we went and saw the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in the morning. We took the vaporetto everywhere on this trip which is great because it gives you a completely different view of Venice.

Whenever I'm in Venice, all I eat is spaghetti con vongole (spaghetti with clams) - and this trip didn't disappoint. We tried two new restaurants - Osteria da Alberto and Osteria al Mascaron - and both spaghettis were to die for.

In the afternoon, we hopped on the train and headed to Florence. I love wandering around Florence because you're always stumbling on a beautiful square or church or fountain. Here's the Duomo, peeking out:

We had a busy morning in Florence, visiting the Uffizi Gallery, popping in to the Cathedral, walking over the Ponte Vecchio and wandering around Mercato Centrale, one of my favorite places of all time.

Then we hopped back on the train and headed up to Cortina for the weekend, just in time to see Ryan's game on Saturday night (a win!). Does anyone have any Venice or Florence tips? Restaurants, hotels, things to see? We're always popping down to Venice for an afternoon or night and we'd love to hear any suggestions!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Embracing Italy

Today I'm a guest writer on Taking Route, a great website for expats (and even for non-expats!), talking about embracing life in Italy and what Italy means to me.

 The biggest lesson that I've learned from these years abroad is to {try} to embrace everything (although that doesn't necessarily mean you have to like it - hello, tiniest sink in the world). And so, here are five things I've embraced about life in Italy:

1. Learning how to drive an Italian car on Italian roads with other Italian drivers passing you along the way.

2. Doing laundry is more complicated than throwing in a load of clothes, waiting 20 minutes and then transferring them to the drier because in Italy, the weather conditions have to be right.

3. The grocery store. Since we've always lived so closed to downtown, I usually walk - which limits the amount of groceries I can buy. I also usually run in to someone I know which means chatting and probably two or three I allow two hours for one grocery store run.

4. The appliances. The other reason I can't buy a week's worth of groceries is that our refrigerator is about a quarter of the size of what we think of in the U.S. as a "normal" - sized fridge. And our freezer is the size of a gallon container of ice cream. (Not to mention that for two years we had no oven and only two burners but still managed to cook Christmas dinner for 15 people).

5. The postal system. Inevitably, every time I go to the post office, I have to wait for half an hour before I can buy overpriced stamps for my postcards or letters. They've been known to go on strike at Christmas time. We often have to pay taxes to receive packages. And usually before the package actually arrives, we get a notice that says our package is stuck in Milan until we sign a piece of paper vouching for the fact that there is no pet hair or produce inside of it.

Despite the difficulties or inconveniences or even just the differences, life in another country is always an adventure, and it's always what you make it to be. Here's what I made Italy into - you can read my full piece here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Expat Interview: Sarah Dowling in Bologna

Today I'm so excited to share a project that I've been working on for the past few months. Living in Italy for the better part of four years has been such an amazing experience for me and I'm always interested to hear other people's stories, experiences and adventures in Italy. Since Cortina is such a small town, I don't know many other expats who have taken a different path than I have, so I rounded up a group of American expats who are living in different parts of Italy and interviewed them to find out what they love about Italy, what they miss most from home and what their favorite Italian meal is.

First up is Sarah Dowling who currently lives in Bologna, where she teaches English and writes two blogs: Italy Project 365 and Bologna With Love.

Sarah was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and when she was 18, she headed to Providence, Rhode Island to attend Providence College where she studied accounting, Italian and completed her MBA. Now she's been living in Italy since's her story:

When and why did you first come to Italy?
I first came to Italy to study abroad in Florence in the fall of 2009. I had been studying Italian language as a minor at my college and had always been fascinated by Italy. So naturally, I chose a city in Italy to complete my semester abroad and I absolutely loved it! I wanted to move back so badly that after graduating from graduate school in 2012, I decided to come back and live in Italy permanently.

What was the most difficult thing to get used to?
I think we are very spoiled with “convenience” in the U.S., so coming to Italy where going shopping is nowhere near as convenient and easy as shopping in the U.S. was difficult. I remember having to go to five different stores to finish all my weekly shopping. I think now larger supermarkets are becoming more popular in Italy, but they still don’t offer the same variety that we have in the U.S. You have to go to this market to buy cheese, this store to buy batteries, another shop to buy soap, and so on…

What do you love most about living in Italy?
For me, I love the lifestyle here. There is a stronger appreciation for sharing a meal together or even just meeting a friend over a cup of coffee. It’s all about relationships and human interaction. You go to a coffee bar and everyone is chatting – sometimes there isn’t even WiFi so sitting on your computer alone just isn’t an option! I think that’s something we often miss or forget to nourish in the U.S. I also just love the fact that I'm constantly learning something new in a foreign place.

What do you miss the most from home?
OH, definitely the people! I miss my family and friends a lot. I really wish I had the power of teleporting. Then my life would be perfect. 

What do you think is the hardest part about living in a different country?
I think being away from family and friends can be really challenging. Also learning to cope with reverse culture shock is something you have to get used to (in fact I recently wrote a blog post about reverse culture shock and some of my most dreaded questions that I get when I go back home (here). There are a lot of times when I return home and my instinct is to immediately compare everything to Italy - but you can’t do that because you’ll end up either offending someone or boring them to death. 

What have you found to be the biggest difference between Italy and the U.S.?
The people. Americans have a tendency to plan out every moment of their day and we often complain at the slightest inconvenience just because we’re so used to having everything easy and readily available at our fingertips. We also tend to just go along with the rules and abide by the laws without thinking twice about it. Italians are more relaxed. They plan things at the last minute and can improvise. Convenience isn’t so important for Italians as is quality and they’re used to having to wait for things or work harder to make something happen. When there is a rule or law they tend to ask “why?" and then make a decision based on their own reasoning. I’m not saying that Americans are dumb and Italians are criminals, but just that we are used to handling things differently.

Beppe Severnigni wrote a fantastic book called La Bella Figura (on Amazon here) that I think explains this Italian mindset really well.

What Italian habits or mannerisms, if any, have you adopted?
Well apart from drinking lots of espresso every day (I’ve always loved coffee so this wasn’t difficult for me to catch on to), I find that I’m much more aggressive. I don’t mean that I’m a meaner person, but just that I’m much less passive. In Italy if you want to cross the street you can’t just wait at the sidewalk until a car stops for you; you have to tell them that you want to cross by beginning to cross. Another example is that if I’m waiting to be seated at a restaurant and I notice that someone cuts in front of me, I immediately say something because if I don’t, Italians will walk all over me and probably even take advantage of the fact that I’m a foreigner. Before coming to Italy, I probably would have sat back passively and nothing would have ever gotten done. 

What's your favorite Italian meal?
I love everything, but the one thing I never get tired of is pizza. A good pizza margherita with fresh tomato sauce, basil, and bufala mozzarella is like heaven on a plate for me. 

Do friends or family back home ever ask you questions about when you're coming home or what exactly it is that you're doing in Italy, etc? And if so, is there one that bothers you more than others?
Well again, I recently wrote a blog post about my most dreaded questions about Italy, where I explain a lot more about this topic. I think if I had to choose one question, it would be “When are you coming home?” because it’s a question that assumes so much. I know they mean well, but for me it sounds like they can’t imagine me having a life elsewhere. 

How did you learn to speak Italian?
Many, many years of practice. I started learning at University (I minored in Italian) but when I arrived in Italy I could barely speak, even though I knew a lot of the grammar. I learned a lot on the street, meeting Italian friends and having Italian boyfriends, but I would say a good portion of my learning took place when I studied for five months in Bologna at an intensive language school.

Where is your favorite place to travel in Italy?
I love it all, but for different reasons. For the beaches, I love Sicily. In terms of sheer beauty, I think the area near Positano and the Amalfi Coast is amazing – it’s a little piece of paradise down there! For the mountains, the Dolomites and the region of Trentino Alto-Adige is spectacular. 

Favorite thing to do?
Eating and hiking! I recently visited Positano and went hiking through some of the trails there. We would stop and have lunch in the little towns and it was the perfect combination! Whenever I travel to a new city in Italy, I always have to find the best places to eat and usually my travel itinerary is centered around food. I just think the variety is so wonderful and should be explored beyond the standard Italian dishes.

Thank you so much, Sarah!